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Picking a Pack


While grocery stores’ prepared food programs fight for share of stomach with restaurants, c-stores, meal delivery plans, food trucks and other venues, food packaging providers have reason to say “the more the merrier.”

A recent study by the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based industry research firm, finds that U.S. demand for food containers is projected to increase 2.8 percent per year to more than $31 billion in 2020. The same study, “Food Containers: Rigid & Flexible,” finds projected demand for foodservice disposables used in the retail and vending machine market is projected to advance 5.1 percent per year to $2.6 billion in 2019, outpacing overall foodservice disposables growth.

As grab-and-go and anytime/anywhere eating becomes the norm, the food packaging industry will continue to reap the rewards, but not without a lot of product development work and innovation to ensure that every piece of packaging performs at its peak to keep food fresh, stable, hot or cold, and appealing to the eye.

Performance, Price, Presentation

In many ways, packaging designed for prepared food programs in grocery stores has to meet more demands than your typical takeout carton. Lynn M. Dyer, president of the Falls Church, Va.-based Foodservice Packaging Institute, explains that performance and price are usually the top packaging priorities. Aesthetics become a distant third because performance needs are so complex.

Dyer rattles of these questions and dozens of others when discussing the evolving needs of grocerant packaging: “Is the food made and packaged on-site, or at a central commissary and distributed through different channels? Should it be tamper evident? How will it be displayed? Is the food going to be held in a warm case? Is it frozen and meant to be warmed at home? Does that packaging reflect a store’s emphasis on health and wellness or family dining?”

“Grocery stores need to stay on top and get it right with packaging,” she advises, noting that people don’t buy food for the packaging, but it can make or break the meal experience.

The food is the most important thing, and the packaging needs to perform for the food, Dyer asserts. Packaging needs to work well in many potential environments, from the store, to the car, to home or office, and into the microwave. Other packaging demands include improved sealability, sustainability, leak resistance and tamper evidence, the last of which means that consumers must break a seal to open the package.

A lot of innovation is coming from the materials used, in a greater range of portion sizes and in overall performance. “Size continues to influence prepared food packaging as more grocery stores cater to smaller families or singles, snacking and also expand their catering programs for large groups,” Dyer notes.

Terry Grill, director of sustainability of the Americas at Sealed Air, a Charlotte, N.C.-based international packaging manufacturer, notes that more portion sizes can also help reduce waste. “Most consumers don’t give a lot of thought to the amount of food they are wasting just by overbuying or getting tired of those leftovers,” Grill says. “If the industry provides more portion packs that are geared for single use and smaller portions, we can reduce those miscalculated sizes and help consumers be more thoughtful about consumption and use.”

Supermarkets Find Clarity

In the food industry, “transparency” is the word. Consumers want menus and food labels to be clear about ingredients, additives, sources and other details. In retail food circles, consumer demand for transparency extends to packaging.

Shoppers want clear, see-through containers that allow fresh ingredients to shine through loud and clear. Transparency in packaging also means consumers want food packed in recycled, compostable options that leave a smaller environmental footprint.

“Packaging needs to fall in line with customer demands for authentic food, clean-ingredient labels and knowing ingredient sources,” says Emily Blair, business development manager at Spartanburg, S.C.-based Milliken Chemical, a manufacturing company with 39 facilities in five countries. “People trust what they can see, which has driven a trend from transparent tops for black containers to total transparency, top and bottom. Grocers are using packaging to increase visual appeal.”

West Sacramento, Calif.-based supermarket chain Raley’s recently made the move to transparency in its prepared foods and Chef’s Menu meal kits.

Evelyn Milliate, corporate chef at Raley’s, explains that the change allows more of the food to be visible and also supports the retail chain’s emphasis on cleaner, simple, all-natural ingredients. “Our customers want less processed food,” says Milliate, noting that transparent packaging for store-brand prepared meals and meal kits helps support these need states.

Sean Norton, Milliken’s North American marketing communications manager, notes: “The need isn’t always for food to always be pretty, but it needs to be real and visible, especially food from the perimeter of the store, which is known to be fresh and prepared on set. More and more, it’s chef-inspired or prepared by on-site chefs.”

Blair adds, “Not only do people want to see fresh food, but if they see half of the dome of a plastic rotisserie container melted under a heat lamp, you’ve lost a customer.”

Milliken’s newest product has improved transparency and can be used for hot and cold applications, which brings value to retailers that can employ the same SKU for a variety of prepared foods. “The same clear packaging can be used for everything from cold salads, guacamole, sides and reheatable chocolate sauce,” Blair says.

Clear and Green

Consumer demand for greater transparency in packaging extends to knowing more about the environmental impact of packaging.

Sealed Air’s Grill says the industry needs to help consumers understand the environmental impact of food waste versus packaging disposal. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food waste makes up 21 percent of municipal food waste, while paper and paperboard makes up 15 percent, and plastics 18 percent. Research shows that more than 60 percent of food waste is avoidable.

“If consumers are made more aware of the amount of food that is wasted and the impact of that waste, they want to be more thoughtful about their consumption and how smaller portions and better packaging are better for the environment than food waste,” Grill says. “We’ve done some tests about consumer messaging with Nielsen research, and when consumers understand how a packaging choice affects shelf life, they pick products that provide longer shelf life and can be resealed for reduced waste.”

“The need to be green is absolutely a big part of the food packaging industry,” Dyer observes, warning that the term “green” is loosely defined: “Does it mean recyclable? Compostable? Today there are options made from sugarcane, some packaging is edible, and bioplastics can be compostable.”

Many people think of recycling as the best way to reduce waste, but it’s also a difficult variable to control. “There is no consistent infrastructure in place to ensure that the same plastics can be recycled in every municipality across the country,” Dyer explains, noting that creating better materials, reducing packaging and making more reusable options available are other pieces that need to be part of green strategies.

“We developed a clear, heat-resistant plastic that can be recycled in at least 50 percent of cities in the U.S. It’s a No. 5 plastic, which is second to soda bottles in recycling capacity,” says Blair, who notes that Millken’s latest plastic innovation can be reused in a number of applications for long-term sustainability, like patio furniture.

Waste reduction challenges still exist, however. Grill points out that many fresh items in the meat, deli and produce categories are packaged in plastic film, which isn’t recyclable, especially with food residue on it. She sees demand for film-related packaging increasing over time.

“Most municipalities are not up to date with their recycling capabilities and are equipped to handle only glass, newspaper and cans,” explains Grill. “The industry has to do more to understand film recovery and how to recycle more flexible materials.”

Compostable packaging is another option that screams “green,” but only when retailers can ensure that it performs at the same level as its non-compostable counterparts. Not only does the material need to break down like the food it holds, but additionally, if the food doesn’t last as long or if the packaging leaks, it’s doing more harm than good.

“The first responsibility [of packaging] is to deliver safe, fresh and well-preserved food,” asserts Grill.

The good news on the green front is that consumers and the industry want the same thing in terms of reducing waste, and the industry is constantly evolving in terms of material, with more renewable and recyclable products becoming available all the time.

“The answer won’t be one single revolutionary packaging product, because no single solution fits all the challenges food providers face,” notes Grill. “But there will be a lot of little advances that, in 10 years, will hit a lot of the marks both retailers and users want to hit.”

“Grocery stores need to stay on top and get it right with packaging.”
—Lynn M. Dyer, Foodservice Packaging Institute

“The need isn’t always for food to always be pretty, but it needs to be real and visible, especially food from the perimeter of the store.”
—Sean Norton, Milliken Chemical

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